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Foucault and Derrida

Foucault and Derrida

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Published by Kevin Aho

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Published by: Kevin Aho on Jun 19, 2012
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ichel Foucault and Jacques Derrida are thetwo authors to whom we most frequentlyrefer in order to characterize a certain orientationof contemporary thought usually called “post-structuralist” or “postmodern.” What do thesetwo authors have in common? Following on theheels of Nietzsche and Heidegger, both have triedto rethink the irreducible
historicity of thought
and, in a more general way, the irreducible
temporality of experience
. This has led them toquestion radically the presuppositions thatgoverned the unfolding of the two great contem-porary branches of modern culture: the posi-tivism of the Anglo-American tradition and theidealism of the Franco-German tradition.In the face of both traditions, Foucault andDerrida tried to show that neither empiricalobjectivity nor transcendental subjectivity can bepostulated with a greater chance of success as faras language is concerned, since language is thelimit and the horizon of all possible experience.Now, since the ideal and general code of 
is inseparable from the empirical and singularevent of 
– to use the already classicalterms of Ferdinand de Saussure – it is notlanguage but rather languages that are given.There is no universal language, either given oracquired once and for all that guarantees men acertain representation of the real and a trustwor-thy communication among themselves. Rather,there is a constant diversification of idioms, anendless series of speech events or, to use afamous expression of Wittgenstein, an aleatorycriss-crossing of distinct “language games.” Thisis to say that the meaning of such language gamesis condemned to an incessant “dissemination,”and to an infinite chain of “interpretations,” sothat the intelligibility of a discourse, of a text, orof a mark whatsoever, cannot be either groundedon an objectively given world, on a presupposedtranscendental consciousness, on a primaryorigin (anterior to, and independent from, thevery flow of discourse) or on an ultimate end(towards which this flow would be destined tele-ologically). We have here the irreducible
to which every language, everythinking and every experience are inevitablyreferred.Nevertheless, the differences betweenFoucault and Derrida begin when we try to deter-mine the manner in which this
affectsthe author’s texts and particularly the philosoph-ical texts which are characterized by their voca-tion to universality and endurance, that is, bytheir claim to transcend all historical determina-tions. The differences begin when we try to deter-mine the manner in which these texts have to be
read, quoted, interpreted and appropriated 
. Theybegin when we try to determine whether this
is an act of 
or of 
,whether it forms a part of 
or of a
.The differences begin, therefore, when we try to
antonio campillo
the history of a debateon history 
 journal of the theoretical humanitiesvolume5 number 2 august 2000
ISSN 0969-725X print/ISSN 1469-2899 online/00/020113-23 © 2000 Taylor & Francis Ltd and the Editors of 
DOI: 10.1080/09697250020012232
the history of a debate
determine the
and the
with which the reader must face, with his ownwriting and with his own authorial name, thewriting and the name of other authors. Finally,the differences begin with the very problem of the
between texts and authors as a
moral problem
.Given all this, the intellectual differencesbetween Foucault and Derrida are in no wayseparable from their different moral responses,towards others or towards the discourse and thename of others; in particular, they are not sepa-rable from their mutual, personal differences,from their encounters and separations, from theway in which each one of them tried to respondto the words and the name of the other. Thesedifferences initiated a debate between them, thepath of which we are going to reconstruct in whatfollows. This is a dramatic and strange debate,interspersed with long silences – a debate thathas been kept alive during more than thirtyyears. Its last episode occurred long after thedeath of Foucault, as a commemoration of thebeginning of the debate and as Derrida’s tributeto his interlocutor (both adversary and friend)who had already disappeared. This is not a meredispute between two discourses, but rather a liti-gation involving two proper names (aboutanother discourse and another proper name –that of Descartes).
In 1961, Foucault published the first of his greatworks –
TheHistory ofMadness in the Classical  Age
He dedicated the first chapter “
 Stultiferia Navis
” to the “tragic” experience of madnessduring the Renaissance; the second chapter toldof the madmen’s “Great Confinement” thatstarted in the seventeenth century. In the begin-ning of this chapter, and in only a few para-graphs, Foucault commented on the first book of Descartes’
 Metaphysical Meditations
, whereDescartes speaks about the errors of the sensesand about dream and madness, as so many obsta-cles to be overcome on the road of the doubt.According to Foucault, these obstacles are not of the same kind: “Descartes did not escape thedangers of madness the way he escaped those of dream or error [ … ]. In the economy of doubt,there is a fundamental disequilibrium betweenmadness, on the one hand, and dream or error,on the other. The situation of madness is
sui generis
in relation to truth and in relation to theone who seeks it. Dreams and illusions are over-come in the structure of truth; but madness isleft excluded by the subject that doubts.”Sensible error and the illusion of dreams can beovercome, because they affect what is talkedabout – the “object of thought” – but madnesswill in no way be overcome, because it affects theone who speaks – the “thinking subject.” It isexcluded, therefore, through a “stroke of force,”through a violent “decision” which, is a“rupture” between reason and madness and atthe same time an “exclusion” of madness“because I who think cannot be mad.”Foucault thinks of this “decision” as an“event,” as a big historical novelty – one thatMontaigne still recognized – “that every thoughtwill be cloaked in unreason.” “A dividing linehas been drawn that would soon render impossi-ble the experience – so familiar during theRenaissance – of an unreasonable reason and of a reasonable unreason. Between Montaigne andDescartes an event took place, something thathad to do with the advent of one
precisely of modern rationalism. But this“event,” this “advent of the one
” does notconcern only the history of philosophy or of ideasin general. As soon as Foucault established a“structural” correlation between the exclusion of madness, carried out in the Cartesian text, andthe “great confinement” of the madmen, carriedout by all European societies during the seven-teenth century, the event was bound to be of interest also to the history of an entire society,the history of an entire age – the age of modernscience and politics.Once the confinement started, it went throughtwo big phases: the “classical age” (seventeenthand eighteenth centuries), during which madnessis thought of, above all, as a “moral disorder,”as “unreason,” for the sake of which themadmen, along with other moral deviants and“asocial” types (beggars, perverts, blasphemers,libertines), will be confined and punished in“general hospitals”; and a second phase, “the
modern period” (which starts at the end of theeighteenth century and the beginning of the nine-teenth century), during which madness is consid-ered as a “mental illness,” for the sake of whichthe madmen are going to be separately incarcer-ated in “psychiatric asylums,” and subjectedto constant observation and therapy in the handsof the new “medico-psychiatric” personages.Foucault would not admit that there is progresshere; he rather thinks that there is occultation:under the mask of medical science, madness isstill excluded and punished.Now, the madmen themselves – a whole seriesof madmen of genius that have left us with a“work” that cannot easily be classified – begun toquestion the rupture between reason andmadness in the last century: Hölderlin,Nietzsche, Roussel, Artaud
et al 
. It is preciselythe “work” of these madmen of genius thatopened the door to a new epoch of thought, andto a new experience of language: beginning withthem, the wall separating reason and unreasoncollapsed, and among its ruins there arose thebeginning of a linkage between madness andliterature, the “I of delirium” and the “I” of the“I write,” the scream and the song. Thus, theCartesian Cogito was challenged and the cycleopened by “classical reason” to include the“confinement” over which that reason wasfounded was now closed. According to Foucault,this new space made his own labor of writingpossible, along with his own “archaeology” of knowledge and confinement, of reason andmadness. Later on, Foucault will go on toinscribe his own name and his own discourse onthis hereditary line of the family of these rebelmadmen, in the historical and discursive domainsopened by them. As for Freud, Foucault main-tained in this book (and in general in all hishistorical studies) one manifest ambiguity: some-times, he welcomed him as an heir of Nietzsche,and sometimes he condemned him as an heir of the medico-psychiatrists.
On 4th March 1963, at the CollègePhilosophique, Jacques Derrida gave a lectureentitled “Cogito and the History of Madness”;Michel Foucault was present in it (having beeninvited by Derrida himself by means of a letterin which the latter’s enthusiasm as well as hisdisagreement were already anticipated).
Derridawent on to confess his admiration, not only forthe book, but even more so for the teaching of Foucault, of whom he considered himself “anadmiring and grateful disciple.” Nevertheless, heproposed to “engage in dialogue with the master”and moreover to “break the glass, or better themirror, the reflection and the infinite speculation[of the disciple] on the master.” Concretely, hewent on to challenge Foucault’s interpretation of the first book of the Cartesian
.According to Derrida, “the reading of Descartesand the Cartesian Cogito proposed to us engagesin its problematic the totality of this
 History of  Madness
” (CHM 32). In the sequence, Derridatried to show:
That, on the road to the Cartesian doubt, theexample of the dream is much more decisiveand much more radical than the example of madness, when it comes to question the total-ity of the ideas of sensible origin.
That the theme of madness is not treated prop-erly at the moment of doubt (where it appearsonly rhetorically as a possible objection oraccusation of a reader to the writer – an objec-tion to which the writer will answer, precisely,with the example of the dream). It is treatedproperly only later on, in the Evil Geniushypothesis, when the question bears also onthe ideas of intelligible origin. But in this casethe Cogito is not affirmed through the exclu-sion or the confinement of madness, but ratherthrough the opposition between a determinatereason and a determinate madness – now thatthe act of the “Cogito is valid
even if I ammad 
,” even if the Evil Genius deceives mecompletely.
That Descartes, at the moment of the Cogito,accedes to the “zero point” of thought, that is,to the point beyond the entire contradictionbetween reason and madness, beyond, there-fore, the total configuration of reason that ishistorically determined. Therefore, this“hyperbolic” point of the doubt cannot be

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